Thinking Like a Mountain in Afghanistan

There has never been anything more powerful than the individual to change the world.


For the past few weeks two books have kept me engrossed in a saga that reminds me about the power of the ordinary citizen.

Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools take readers on the personal journey of Greg Mortenson as he follows his heart in the most remote places on this planet. The fact is, Greg’s intuition and inexhaustible determination, have made him such an effective U.S. diplomat that military leaders are visiting him to learn his secret.

Greg and his small nonprofit organization are building schools in rural communities of Afghanistan and Pakistan and making sure that girls attend them. He offers this proverb from Africa as his raison d’être: “Educate a boy and you’ve educated an individual; educate a girl and you’ve educated a community.”

Sleeping in his old Buick, living on food from street vendors, working through the night shift at a hospital— the journey of the warrior often looks like failure in our wealthy, modern culture. Where did his story begin?

In the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Greg spent happy days with his little sister and parents in a culturally diverse region of Tanzania where he learned to speak dialects of his local friends. He watched as his father struggled to build a hospital, declaring it would one day be staffed by Tanzanians (not wealthy expats who believed the locals incapable).

This was the framework of experience that set the course of Mortenson’s life journey.

But two tragedies would have to wet the stone of Greg’s resolve. His father’s death from cancer coincided with his sister’s premature death from severe epilepsy. Greg vowed to climb the highest mountain on earth in honor of her short, difficult life.

And he nearly lost his own life in the attempt. After begin rescued by local villagers as he wandered lost at the base of K-2’s soaring 28,000 ft. peak, Greg spent the winter months with villagers in  Korphe, a place few ever leave or venture.

In the house of Haji Ali, chief of Korphe, Greg met his life long mentor who taught him the wisdom of “three cups of tea.”

What is this wisdom? Haji Ali: The first cup of tea we meet each other. The second cup of tea we come to know each other. The third cup of tea we become friends. Then, we can do business.

It’s all about relationships. That was a lesson his father learned in Africa: to sit with the local people, pass the communal gourd of beer, tell stories and get to know each other.

In Korphe Greg learned the ways of the people and came to respect their simple, rugged lives. He was nursed back to health. One day, while out walking the landscape, he came upon a group of children sitting in the snow and rocks with thier teacher.

Haji Ali told him the children had no school house so they sat outside to learn. Haji Ali’s little daughter, Jahan was among the girls who shivered in the frigid air. She asked Greg if he could help them build a school. He promised her he would do what he could.

Since that promise, Jahan has become a graduate of medical studies, delivering health care to her village and the people of the region –  more than 130 schools pepper the rural villages on both sides of the vaulted Karakorum between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But more, Greg Mortenson has become known by the rural people of Afghanistan and Pakistan as an American who can be trusted, a man of his word.

State departments and military generals now read Three Cups of Tea as a way of learning how to do business in that part of the world.

In spite of wars, the convolutions of local fiefdoms, in spite of a 7.6 magnitude earthquake, and infrastructure obstacles that would defy the resources of even the most powerful nation on earth, Greg and his “dirty dozen” colleagues at the Central Asia Institute persist.

By drinking three cups of tea they are turning stones—stones that mark the locations of  land mines planted during the Soviet invasion, and among which unwary children play—into schools where they can make a better life through education.

Greg’s declaration? Every school must strive for an equal ratio of girls to boys. In Afghanistan and Pakistan that is a quiet revolution.

Simple but powerful in its message, many of the CAI schools are expressly for girls. Greg’s belief is that by empowering girls to become transforming agents of their communities, the fire of hatred flamed by extremists groups will be damped with hope.

One man’s journey reminds us once again that when we act from our own internal compass and follow the urgings of our heart, the path will be true…not easy, but straight as a piercing arrow into the heart of a problem.

There has never been anything more powerful than the individual to change the world.

Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools (VIKING, 2006, 2009)

Author: Susan Feathers

Family, friends, nature, books, writing, a good pen and journal, freedom of thought, culture, and peaceful co-relations - these are the things that occupy my mind, my heart, my time...

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